Texas Tech University

Failure To Properly Label Laboratory Produced Nanomaterials Results In Spontaneous Combustion Fire


What happened?

On July 7, 2014 in a Mechanical Engineering research lab two graduate students and three student workers were working on a project when a fire spontaneously started. The fire originated while the graduate students were measuring out aluminum nanoparticles obtained from another research lab in the department. The fire ignited a weigh boat and could not be extinguished with the available dry agent 'ABC' fire extinguisher, which was not appropriate for use with a metals fire. The fire was finally smothered with lab coats and extinguished. The lab was evacuated and the Texas Tech Police Department and the Lubbock Fire Department responded to secure the lab.

All students and personnel were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment including lab coats, safety goggles and gloves. One graduate student had burns on his/her pants.

Incomplete chemical indication without any hazards indicated.
Incomplete chemical indication without any hazards indicated.

Incomplete chemical indication without any hazards indicated.
Incomplete chemical indication without any hazards indicated.

What was the cause?

The materials in question were described as aluminum nanoparticles and were obtained from a production lab in the same department. In the past, aluminum nanoparticles used in this lab were procured from a commercial source. It is suspected that the commercially produced aluminum nanoparticles were allowed to oxidize and posed little threat of spontaneous combustion. These locally sourced aluminum nanoparticles were not allowed to oxidize and were instead stored in a sealed aluminum air tight bag in a freezer. The label on the bag indicated only that the contents were “Aluminum Nanopowder”. The principal investigator who directed the lab where these materials were produced indicated that these materials were not manufactured recently, and that the individuals who produced the materials were no longer at the university.

What caused the incident?

  • Unoxidized Aluminum nanoparticles were not appropriately labeled.
  • The procedures for material use in the receiving lab did not include a review of appropriate safety information for the materials used.
  • The receiving lab did not have sand or other fire suppression materials appropriate for a metals fire.

What corrective actions were taken?

When fire and police personnel released the lab, Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) staff conducted a cleanup and investigation and released the lab the next day. The investigation and follow-up actions focused on these areas:

  1. The Institutional Laboratory Safety Committee and Environmental Health and Safety stopped work in the laboratory until appropriate work practices were written and established. Environmental Health and Safety staff also disposed of all remaining aluminum nanoparticles upon request of the principal investigator. The equipment used to fabricate the materials was locked-out and tagged until such time as safety plans are in place for its operation and product analysis.
  2. Buckets of sand were added to smother metal fires and the 'ABC' fire extinguisher was not replaced.
  3. The Vice President of Research sent a formal message to the university to re-iterate TTU's expectations about material handling, as described in the CHP: This message emphasized five points:
    1. All materials and chemicals in every laboratory at TTU must be correctly identified on the container label, and this container must be labeled with all appropriate secondary container labeling, as shown below:
      1. Product Name (Chemical name not formula)
      2. Signal Word ("Danger" or "Warning" depending on the severity of the hazard)
      3. Hazard Statement (Describe the nature of the hazard including degree)
      4. Precautionary Statement (Describes measures taken to minimize hazard, i.e. 'Keep Refrigerated')
    2. Any production of a material by TTU employees, even if such a material is stored temporarily as an intermediate in a more extensive process, must be properly labeled as described in item 1 above. It is a responsibility of the material's creator to properly and completely label any material that they produce.
    3. All laboratory personnel must be familiar with the secondary container labeling, and they must handle all materials in a safe manner that mitigates all known hazards.
    4. No one should open any unmarked or unlabeled containers within the laboratory. Instead, contact Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) for help in mitigating the risks associated with any unknown material in an unlabeled container.
    5. Also for assistance there is a link to the ChemWatch SDS database on the EH&S website. Anyone with eRaider access can access this valuable information. From here you can review or print SDS's to help assist in labeling. Also available are one sheet SDS's that can be printed and placed in your lab. SDS's can also be viewed in multiple languages.

How can we prevent incidents like this?

  • Conduct proper hazard analysis of materials being generated in your lab and label this material appropriately.
  • Conduct a proper hazard analysis of materials you will be working with in your lab, and be sure that you have protective and countermeasures appropriate to the materials you use.
  • Review your training activities and your written procedures to make sure that they reflect the current and understood hazards of materials used.


  1. Section 15 of the TTU Chemical Hygiene Plan